Yesterday I was invited onto the BBC News Northwest Tonight programme to talk about Sarah’s Law and group Communities Against Paedophiles Southlakes who were posting the home addresses of sex offenders onto a Facebook page.
Sarah’s Law or to give it its proper title the Child Sex Offender’s Disclosure Scheme was introduced after the campaign by Sarah Paine whose daughter was abducted and murdered in 2000 by Roy Whiting who was already a convicted sex offender. Sarah Paine campaigned for a system of police disclosure to allow parents to be informed about sex offenders in their local area.
The scheme set out a more formal framework for the system which had already been in place and was rolled out nationally. Disclosures of previous sexual offences may be made – usually to parents who apply provided that it is likely to enhance the protection of a child. If, for example, the offender has no contact or involvement with children then it is unlikely that a disclosure would be made. If however he was allowing neighbour’s children into his garden etc then this would make the disclosure far more likely.
The problem with the Cumbrian campaign is that it is likely to lead to a lynch mob mentality. In the US there is a government scheme known as Megan’s Law which allows for a blanket disclosure of all child sex offenders in the area including their full addresses, however this has resulted in several cases of vigilantes murdering offenders and setting fire to their homes. Megan’s law has also resulted in a far lower rate of co-operation by offenders with the authorities making it far more difficult to monitor them and protect the public. Why would they notify agencies of their whereabouts if this could put them at risk of violence?
There are also risks of mistakes being made, for example, old addresses being disclosed and even a case in the UK of a pediatrician being targeted over a misunderstanding of her job title!
We are supposed to be a humane society and whilst sexual abuse is totally abhorrent we must not encourage a society that seeks to terrorise other human beings whatever their past.
The hysteria surrounding this type of disclosure also detracts from the reality of the risk of child sexual abuse. The people who are most likely to abuse our children are our own family members – usually with no previous convictions for this type of offence. This is where the real risk of child abuse lies – in our own homes rather than on our streets. Only 20% of child sex offences are carried out by strangers so we would be far better to focus our attention on the people we bring into contact with our children rather than the fear of the paedophile who is lurking within our wider community.